A MARred Alternative: Offense, Defense and U.S.-China Relations
Image Credit: DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett

A MARred Alternative: Offense, Defense and U.S.-China Relations


In a recent article in The Diplomat, Amitai Etzioni proposes that the United States and China adopt a strategy of Mutually Assured Restraint (MAR) to manage their emerging strategic rivalry in the Asia-Pacific. Under MAR, “both powers [would] adopt measures that would allow China to take the steps it holds are necessary for self-defense, without extending them to the point that they threaten other nations or the international commons.” The U.S. would similarly be allowed “to take the steps it holds necessary for self defense, while living up to its obligations to its allies in the region and maintaining the international order.” To accomplish this, Etzioni proposes two complementary courses of action: the limitation of offensive armaments (including anti-ship missiles) and cyber activities, and the establishment of geopolitical disengagement zones.

While one would wish that such constructive proposals would be produced in greater numbers and their merits debated more intensively, there are major problems with the MAR scheme that raise serious doubts about its viability.

First of all, in envisioning a limitation of military capabilities to “short-range defensive missiles” and the like, MAR burdens itself with the dubious presupposition that offensive and defensive weapons are clearly distinguishable. While some offense-defense theorists might claim otherwise, they are not – for the simple reason that the offensive or defensive potential of a weapon system is a matter not of range or other technical characteristics, but of contextual factors such as force employment and geography.

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Examples of this abound. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union feared – with some justification – that weapons that were designed by NATO for theater defense could be used offensively to strike its strategic early warning and command & control systems. In 1973, the Egyptian army used its inventory of Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles to cover its offensive ground operations against Israel. The artillery rockets Hezbollah fired into Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War were short-range weapons designed for battlefield employment. It is unlikely that their designers ever imagined they could one day be used strategically to attack a nation’s political will to wage war. Yet they were, and they now form a major element of Iran’s strategic deterrent vis-à-vis Israel.

If we transpose this pattern to the Asia-Pacific, a Chinese missile that does not pose a threat to U.S. bases in Japan may very well be perceived as threatening by Taiwan or South Korea. Japanese air and missile defenses that can inflict no damage whatsoever on the Chinese mainland could be used to cover offensive amphibious operations in the East China Sea. The strategic mobility of U.S. strike forces is such that they can threaten Chinese interests, no matter where particular assets are based or deployed at any given point in time. And, to complicate the picture even further, an anti-ship ballistic missile that is not perceived as an offensive threat by the U.S. Navy is unlikely to fulfill what the Chinese construe as their legitimate self-defensive needs.

In short, efforts to differentiate offensive from defensive weaponry are problematic at best. What is true of every other operational environment is likely to be true of cyberspace as well. Unless Etzioni is proposing that all the relevant actors reduce their militaries to the status of pure costal defense forces devoid of any potential for power projection beyond the littoral, threatening offensive capabilities will inevitably remain.

Second, and more importantly, in suggesting that China and U.S. could both “take the steps [they hold] are necessary for self-defense” without posing a threat to the other’s interests, the MAR scheme fundamentally misconstrues the current grand strategies of both actors.

For China, a sufficient self-defensive capability is one that allows it to establish a level of control over its immediate geopolitical environment and to deter any serious U.S. interference in its vital interests, including the status of Taiwan. It is difficult to see how China could retain a sufficient level of military capability to accomplish these goals without “threaten[ing] other nations or the international commons.”

The United States, meanwhile, maintains a large military presence in the Asia-Pacific not as a matter of self-defense, as those outside the circles of the American foreign policy elite would conceive of it, but as part of an expansive grand strategy of hegemonic engagement. Against this backdrop, the suggestion that current U.S. “obligations to its allies in the region and maintaining the international order” would be compatible with the institution of a geopolitical buffer zone along China’s periphery that “would prohibit military treaties, agreements, and exercises” would seem rather problematic, too. In fact, any level of forward military presence that the U.S. would define as consistent with its legitimate defensive needs, and those of its allies, is likely to be perceived as a potential threat in Beijing.

The conflicts of interest that arise as a result of these incompatible grand strategic priorities are real, and they will persist as long as the two actors follow their current assumptions about how best to create security for themselves. The observable arms dynamic is merely an expression of those divergences. As Colin Gray observed twenty years ago, “Weapons Don’t Make War.” Neither do they make strategic rivalries. Once a rivalry is firmly established, arms control and other restraining measures may prove useful in managing the level of tensions, and offer a way of buying time for serious negotiations or transformative political changes to take effect (as SALT did). But the key to a cooperative U.S.-China relationship is to be found at the level of grand strategy – or not at all.

Michael Haas is a researcher in Global Security at the Center for Security Studies, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The views presented above are his alone. Michael tweets @the_final_stand. 

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